Stephen Shaw has always admired the Gerald Dillion Gallery at Cultúrlann and he’s delighted now to show in the Falls Road venue works completed over the past 30 months.
Stephen originally trained in graphics at Belfast Art College but found himself drawn towards watercolour. He has often been asked to teach. However, like many artists he is not totally sure how actually he does it. It simply comes.
The patience and eye he has developed over the years take a particular kind of observation and fine skill. Unusually, he mixes the paint on the page not on the palette. He’s attracted to the often overlooked: the blocked up doorways, crumbling facades, derelict buildings with buddleia sprouting out of them. “Why paint that?” people sometimes ask. “There is beauty in dereliction,” he replies. “Painting new buildings holds no appeal, they are so boring to paint.”
Currently with a home studio he has had various studios across the city and at one point an exhibition space above Terry Hooley's record shop — but he’s not telling any stories about that.
When I met him at the exhibition with his daughter Lucy, he told me that many of the paintings were completed during lockdown. The piece of the famous Falls landmark The Rock Bar was started in 2006. However, it was never completed until this year.
He often works on a number of pieces at the same time, only focusing on one if it’s a commission.
Taispeántais nua oscáilte inniu | New exhibitions opened today— Cultúrlann (@Culturlann) August 5, 2021
Gan Srian le Stephen Shaw🖼
I gCroílár mo Chroí le Artists at the Mill 🖼#Féile2021@comartspartner @FeileBelfast @ArtsCouncilNI @ATownNews @ForasnaGaeilge @Ffeirste pic.twitter.com/yFALSRQ7gR
Stephen is known for painting in subtle coded messages in his works, Spurs is often written in the graffiti referring to his football fan-ship. The piece ‘Declarations’ at first sight looks like an abstract image of a fence but on close inspection you can see some of the Irish Proclamation of Independence in graffiti.
Works finished during the pandemic have CV 19 painted somewhere. He hopes to be able to stop doing this soon.
There is also humour: The boarded-up shop front with ‘Jesus saves’ written on it also has a shop sign, ‘Save more’ added to it ‘Still Life of Donegal’ depicts a window with all sorts of random junk. Indeed, his focus of observation on the window and execution of the painting has raised it to the status of art.
Stephen takes photographs to help his memory of a place but never copies directly from the photograph, using it as a starting point. The one piece in the exhibition not for sale is one he completed in memory on the death of a friend. It depicts a random doorway with, running shoes, graffitied names of people and places they both held dear. It will hang in his studio in honour of his memory.
Stephen told me he has a skill of finding the best bar in a village or town: he looks for the most dilapidated one as he always finds it has the best craic. Not bad advice. Often he ends up painting it .There are some paintings of Newfoundland where his wife comes from, she is also seen in the shop ‘Walsh’.
Stephen sees the pieces in abstracts of shapes and curves, the Belfast brick changed to Newfoundland wood, the vertical and horizontals leading your eye. Yet you know they are not of Ireland as the light is very different, the building materials changed. The work shows the magical difference an artist can create by being the intermediary between what is seen and felt and what comes out of our hands.
It’s worth lingering over the show to see what arises for you: if you notice the bottle of Buckfast or other hidden symbols painted in a way that can only be achieved after a lifetime of practice.
'Unconfined' by Stephen Shaw is at Cultúrlann until 30 September.
Apologies to anyone who went looking for Belfast’s first Potters market in Writers' Square. It was postponed due to the atrocious weather and will take place on Saturday 14 August.